My Meeting with the Israel Immigrant, Part XIV:
The English Immigrant
In a Jerusalem office complex, I meet with David, the administrator of a large non-profit organization based here. Today David plans to share with me the story of his move to Israel 20 years ago.
At the age of 50, David looks a decade younger. His gait is brisk, and his eyes shine with a youthful enthusiasm. As the director of a non-profit agency doing international relief work with children, David is proud of what he is accomplishing. And he sees this activity as a logical culmination of his move to Israel from London two decades ago. “I came here to make a difference,” he explains. “But living in Israel has also made a difference in me.”
Davis was raised in the London suburbs by parents who were both university professors. He assumed he would follow them into the academic world, but a visit to Israel while he was in graduate school changed everything. “When I came here and felt the vibrancy of the country, as well as all the need around me, I realized that I could make a true difference here,” he says. “After finishing school, I began to make plans to emigrate.”
Life in Israel has been good. With his wife, Freda, he has raised two children, both teenagers now, and worked hard to build an organization that reaches out to children in need. “I’m not a religious person per se,” David notes. “But I express my spirituality in trying to help others. And I express my Jewish identity by helping make Israel strong.”
The Jews of England
Dating back to the time of the Norman Conquest, Jewish history in England is a varied one. Although Jews have likely lived in the area since Roman times, the first record of a Jewish settlement in England was found in the early 11th century. English Jewry has gone through cycles of welcome, banishment, and resettlement. By the early 20th century, however, England was accepting of large streams of Jewish immigrants who fled pogroms and May Laws in Europe and Russia. Over the course of 40 years, the Jewish population of England increased from 60,000 to 250,000.
English Jewry enjoyed great support in England during the last two centuries in particular. The election of Disraeli as British prime minister was a source of pride, and Parliament has not been without Jewish representation since that time. Some of the most elaborate modern synagogues in the world were built in England. English Jews have been successful in all walks of life and welcomed persecuted Jewish immigrants from other countries to their own home country. And for better or worse, England has been considered to have among the world’s most assimilated Jewish communities.
In less than a decade, however, the support of England’s Jews appears to have changed. Anti-Semitic speech and activities have sharply risen, both in certain living quarters of the city and, most shockingly, on university campuses. Much of the activity seems to be a reaction to Israel’s war in Gaza and a significant increase in the nation’s Muslim population. While approximately 300,000 Jews live in England today, there are six-fold that number of Muslims. As a result, the political climate has shifted, so much so that the last Labor Party election campaign featured the depiction of several Jewish politicians as pigs.
However, most Jews continue to live in England in relative comfort, occupying respected positions in government, the arts, entertainment, academia, and business. Their assimilation has served them well in this regard. One concern for many in the Jewish community is that increased assimilation and intermarriage, combined with low birth rates, may put the future of a vibrant English Jewish community in eventual jeopardy.
English Jews in Israel
In the last 70 years, Israel has welcomed 31,000 immigrants from England. A Jewish Agency foreign spokesman has described British Jews in general has having “a really strong Jewish consciousness.” The agency acknowledges that it is making strong efforts to encourage British citizens to move to Israel, and it seems to be working. Over the past few years, emigration to Israel from England has almost doubled
Israel seems like a natural fit for many English Jews, with its secular Jewish focus and emphasis upon assimilation. And English-speaking Jews like David traditionally do well in this country. Most English Jews who immigrate to Israel don’t do so out of fear, but an attraction to building a life in a community that has a strong identity and many opportunities for work and creativity.
In David’s case, fear was certainly not an issue. “I consider myself lucky,” he says, “that I left England when I did – before the ugliness emerged. I have fond memories of my time in England. But having spent the most productive years of my life in Israel, I find that my life in England sometimes feels more like a dream.”